Back to home page click here

WORLD CITIES I LOVE

All cities in alphabetical order

Contents

  • Introduction
  • Agra, India
  • Beijing, China
  • Cairo, Egypt
  • Cape Town, South Africa
  • Cusco, Peru
  • Delhi, India
  • Fès, Morocco
  • Havana, Cuba
  • Hong Kong, China
  • Isfahan, Iran
  • Jaipur, India
  • Kathmandu, Nepal
  • Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
  • Kyoto, Japan
  • La Paz, Bolivia
  • Nairobi, Kenya
  • New York, USA
  • Philadelphia, USA
  • Québec, Canada
  • Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
  • Samarkand, Uzbekistan
  • San Jose, Costa Rica
  • San Francisco, USA
  • Shanghai, China
  • Tel Aviv, Israel
  • Tokyo, Japan
  • Washington, USA
  • Vancouver, Canada
  • Xi'an, China

  • Introduction

    I am half English and half Italian, my wife is half Welsh and half Czech, and our son has a degree in International Relations and currently lives in Kenya. So it might seem inevitable that I love travelling to other countries and meeting people from other cultures.

    In fact, I grew up in a working class, single-parent household where overseas trips were rarely on the agenda. My Italian mother took us - by train - to her home city of Naples when I was four and again when I was almost 14, but this was the only foreign travel of my childhood.

    When I was 18, I was fortunate enough to be selected for an educational tour of western Canada, but essentially I did not start to travel until I was a university student. My first independent trip was as a 21 year old when I spent a bitterly cold Christmas 1969 in Amsterdam.

    Subsequently I have spent most of my holidays abroad, initially visiting European cities but, more latterly, venturing further afield. I have only ever lived in Manchester and London - both large cities - and therefore I love going to cities for holidays. Not for me lying on a beach wasting time and risking skin cancer!

    Also my work as a trade union official gave me regular opportunities to travel because the transformation of our industries - telecommunications and posts - was of great interest to other countries and because these industries are increasingly becoming global. Therefore I have frequently visited cities to take part in conferences or give presentations and I have usually taken the opportunity to look at some of the local sights.

    So, to date, I have visited 68 countries - half of them in Europe, but 14 in Asia, 12 in the Americas, eight in Africa and two in Oceania - and, in total, I have ventured abroad 184 times. In the course of all this travel, I have flown over 550 times and clocked up over 1,100 hours flying time in my flight log.


    Agra, India

    This is, of course, home to one of the most famous buildings in the world: the Taj Mahal. This monument is perhaps the grandest physical expression of love in the history of humankind. It took 20,000 craftsmen almost 22 years (1632-1654) to construct this memorial for the Emperor Shah Jahan in honour of his third and favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal, the niece of Nur Jahan, who lived from 1594-1630 and died giving birth to her 14th child. Constructed from miraculously white marble from the Rajasthan quarries of Makrana, it is said to have cost three million rupees, the equivalent of about $60M today. A photograph of Vee and I sitting together on a bench before the Taj sits in our living room as a reminder of a magical visit.

    For more details on Agra click here

    Beijing, China

    In September 2000, my wife and I made a wonderful tour of China taking in no fewer than nine cities. Beijing, of course, was extra special, both for being the capital and for being the base for visiting the Great Wall. Then, in November 2001, I was asked to speak at a conference there and given a second, more leisurely, opportunity to explore this fascinating place. Next, in March 2010, my wife and I made another tour of China - this time with young Chinese friends - taking in eight cities, including Beijing once more. So I have now visited this historic city three times.

    The highlights of old Beijing are the huge expanse of the Forbidden City, the magnificent Lama Temple, the atmospheric Confucius Temple, and the blue-roofed Temple of Heaven (try to go at the weekend when the park is full of Beijingers entertaining themselves) in the centre and the extensive Summer Palace (once burned by the British) on the outskirts, although – scattered all around – there are the old narrow lanes called ‘hutongs’. To wander the spaces of the Forbidden City - as I have done three times now - is to feel like an extra in the film “The Last Emperor” and allegedly there are 9,999 rooms in what is properly called the Imperial Palace.

    By contrast, modern Beijing is now a mega-city of some 17.5 million people with fewer and fewer bicycles and more and more new cars clogging up no less than six ring roads. Tiananmen Square is the largest in the world and it is possible to see Chairman Mao’s preserved body (he died in 1976) in a mausoleum in the centre of the square.

    I’ve had some wonderful meals around the world, but a banquet during the Sino-UK government conference on my second trip to Beijing was something really special. It consisted of no less than 11 courses:

    As for the Great Wall, most visitors go to the Badaling section to the north-west of the city, but in 2000 we went to the Mutianyu section to the north to avoid the crowds. It’s almost two hours by coach, but we set off really early, so that we were virtually the only ones on the wall. The weather was glorious and the views stunning, so all in all I rate it as one of the greatest experiences of my life. When I revisited the wall on my second trip in 2001, it was to the same section, but in totally different conditions. There was so much snow that it was almost impossible to walk and there was so much mist that it was impossible to see any of the terrain.

    For more details on Beijing and the Great Wall in 2000 click here

    For more details on Beijing in 2010 click here

    Cairo, Egypt

    This is the only city that I have visited in Africa – but what a city. It is the largest in Africa and the Middle East with some 13 million people. The drivers are the craziest that I have encountered anywhere in the world – not just plain mad like those of Rome, but absolutely demonic. Yet the city has so many wonders: the famed Cairo Museum with the treasures of Tuntankamun’s tomb, the magnificent Mosque of Mohammed Ali, the bustle of the Khan al-Khalili bazaar, and through it all the mighty Nile river.

    Then, just half an hour or so down the road, are the Great Pyramids of Giza – the only one of the Seven Wonders of the World still to be in existence. The largest of the three pyramids, the Great Pyramid of Kheops, consists of some 2.3 million stone blocks each weighing around 2.5 tons. I scrabbled around on sandy dunes, trying to take photographs from every angle, while Vee took a ride on a camel called King Solomon. Down the valley is the Sphinx – another great photo opportunity!

    The trouble with Egypt is the risk of stomach trouble, apparently suffered by one in two visitors. Among Vee and me, I was the one and spent two days effectively unable to view any sights except our hotel bathroom.

    For more details on Cairo and the pyramids Cape Town, South Africa

    Cape Town has one of the most spectacular locations on earth, sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and the amazingly flat-topped Table Mountain. Smaller, safer and more cultured than Johannesburg, it is the prime city destination of any visitor to South Africa.

    Reminders of the country's apartheid past are plentiful: the Bo-Kaap area and the District Six Museum, the Jewish Museum, the townships like Langa, and above all the trip to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 19 years. But the city now has a lively, cosmopolitan feel with the shops and restaurants of the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront underlining the prosperity of the place. The views from Table Mountain are magnificent and nearby one has the Cape of Good Hope and to the Western Cape winelands.

    For more details on Cape Town click here

    Cusco, Peru

    The name Cusco means 'navel' in the Quechua language (which locals still speak to each other) and the city was known as the navel of the Inca empire. It is located at 11,000 feet (3,700 metres) in El Valle Sagrado (the Sacred Valley) which was said to take the shape of a puma, the sacred mountain lion of the Incas.

    The Spanish, led by the conquistador Francisco Pizarro, arrived in Cusco in 1533 when the population was an estimated 15,000 (it is now 140,000). One conquistador described the city as "the greatest and finest ever seen in the country or anywhere in the Indies … it is so beautiful and has such fine buildings that it would be remarkable even in Spain".

    We arrived in Cusco on the eve of a very special annual festival called Inti Raymi. This is celebrated each year on 24 June and is the Inca feast of the winter solstice. The ritual was lost for four centuries before being reconstructed in 1944 and composed in his native Quechua by Faustino Espinoza Navarro, who also played the Inca for many years. Today almost 1,000 local actors participate in the production.

    For more details on Cusco click here

    Delhi, India

    Every serious traveller has to visit India and most visitors to the country will enter it in Delhi. The country is a mindblowing experience of contrasting images which start immediately. On the one hand, we were welcomed at the airport with a garland of flowers being placed around our neck and a meeting with our guide who was so wonderful that a decade later we are still in touch. On the other hand, the moment one steps outside one's coach, one is assailed by hawkers with every kind of ware and beggars of every description - something one has to accept almost everywhere in the sub-continent.

    Religion is a defining characteristic of this huge nation, so it is apposite that two of the places we visited were the contrasting sights of the Friday Mosque where so many woshippers pray each week and the site of the assassination of Gandhi.

    The Jama Masjid or Friday Mosque was built between 1644-1658 for the Emperor Shah Jahan and it is the largest in India (capable of accommodating some 20,000). Three sets of steep stone steps lead up to a courtyard of 100 square metres (over 1,000 square feet) enclosed by long colonnades with a pavilion at each corner.

    The Gandhi Smriti Memorial Museum is located on Tees January Marg in the grand house previously owned by the industrialist B D Birla where Mahatma Gandhi always stayed on his visits to Delhi and where he was assassinated on 30 January 1948. Inside the museum are informative panels and models concerning the life of this charismatic leader of Indian nationalism. Outside in the garden, a set of concrete footprints mark his last steps before he was gunned down by a Hindu extremist, enraged by his support for the Muslims.

    For more details on Delhi click here

    Fès, Morocco

    Morocco has much better-known cities - such as Casablanca and Marrakech (both of which I have visited) - but, for me, Fès is the country's most interesting and exotic city. In its long history - it was founded in 789 AD - it was the capital of three of Morocco's great royal dynasties - the Idrissids, the Merenids and the Alaouites - and today it is the spiritual and cultural centre of traditional Morocco with a population swollen to 1.2 million by the droughts of the 1980s.

    At the beating heart of Fès is the medina, the largest in the world with 9,400 narrow lanes making up a veritable and utterly magical labyrinth. Every type of food and good is on display in multitudinous stores and workshops. Most of the lanes are no wider than one's outstretched arms, so there is no traffic whatsoever, just throngs of people and laden donkeys and mules and bicycles.

    The medina is organised (if that is not too strong a word) into souks selling different wares. The most fascinating area is the Dabbaghine which is the tanning centre. Rows of huge vats - some of them used for centuries- fill the square below, as barefoot workers make their way around the top of the containers. The vats themselves are pits of dyes coloured crimson, purple, yellow and orange. Here hides of sheep, goats, cows and camels are soaked in readiness for the leatherworkers. The atmosphere is enhanced by the tanned hides hanging out to dry from terraces surrounded the area.

    For more details on Fès click here

    Havana, Cuba

    Havana is like no other city on earth - such a unique combination of features.

    One can still marvel at the restored colonial architecture of Old Havana, the largest colonial centre in Latin America and rightly a UNESCO world heritage site. Many of the streets are cobbled and some are pedestrianised, cut off to traffic by upended old cannon. The doors, balconies and windows are a photographer's delight with scene after scene crying out to be captured.


    Courtyard in Old Havana

    Scene in Plaza de la Catedral

    Archway in Old Havana

    Meanwhile the city as a whole is trapped in a time warp occasioned by five decades of communism. Most buildings are crumbling to the point of almost falling down, while the streets are enlivened by American cars of the 1950s miraculously maintained and still running. Located on the island's north coast, the seafront promenade known as the Malecón runs along the bay for 7 km (4 miles).

    Over it all is the suffocating weight of a revolutionary regime, celebrated in the Museum of the Revolution, but suffering poverty and shortages which are a result of both the regime itself and the American blockade. Yet, in spite of everything, the people are friendly and smiling and everywhere one finds music and dancing and mojitos.

    For more details on Havana click here

    Hong Kong, China

    Three years after the hand-over by the British to the Chinese, we were assured that almost nothing had changed. Certainly HK retains a distinct economy and its own currency with tight controls on the movement of people from the mainland to the former colonial territory. The huge harbour itself is magnificent with stunning views from Victoria Peak. At the foot of the hill, the rapid growth of huge skyscrapers makes the Central area of Hong Kong Island look and feel like a mini Manhatten (although they still have double-decker trams). On the other side of the harbour, Kowloon is teeming with people, traffic and shops of every description. To visit Hong Kong is like standing on a bridge between West and East - a kaleidoscope of different, even conflicting, cultures and values.

    For more details on Hong Kong click here

    Isfahan, Iran

    Iran has had many capital cities in its 2,500 history, but it was Shah Abbas I who made Isfahan his capital and his legacy ensures that this is still the most beautiful city in the country and one of the most outstanding architectural jewels in the whole Islamic world.

    The gem is what is now known as Imam Square but used to be called Naqsh-e Jahan Square (meaning 'pattern of the world'). The square was begun in 1602 as the centrepiece of the new capital of Shah Abbas I. At 1,700 feet (512 metres) long by 525 feet (163 metres) wide, it is the second largest square on earth, after Tiananmen Square in Beijing which does not begin to compare in the elegance of its design or the beauty of its buildings. It is rightly a World Heritage site. It contains three outstanding buildings: in the middle of the long west side is the Ali Qapu Palace, in the middle of the long east side is the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, and on the south side is the Imam Mosque, while on the north side is the entrance to the Grand Bazaar and on all four sides arcades of shops (over 200 of them) – all in all, a simply sumptuous display of Islamic architecture, possibly unrivalled in the world.


    Fountains make a rainbow in Imam Square

    Yet this is not all. The city has 11 bridges over the river Zayandeh Rood (life giving river) : five of them old and six new. The two most beautiful are the Si-o-Seh Bridge (built between 1599-1602) and the Khaju Bridge (built about 1650) and , at the latter bridge, I was moved to dance as a man sang under one of the arches and locals clapped out the rhythm. When one adds the Jameh Mosque, the Vank Cathedral and the Chehel Sotun Palace, one begins to see just how rich is Isfahan in history and culture.

    For more details on Isfahan click here

    Jaipur, India

    Jaipur is the capital of the Indian state of Rajasthan. In 1876, the walled city was painted for a visit by Britain's Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), since when it has been known as 'the pink city'. Even today, every 10 years, the walled part of the city is repainted. However, it is not really pink but red sandstone in colour. Today the walled city houses 1.3 million while the outer city hosts another 1.7 million.

    We visited the famous Hawa Mahal (Palace of Winds), the Jantar Mantar Observatory, the City Palace and the Birla Lakshmi Narayan Temple but, for me, the most exciting and memorable experience in the city was a street walk. We entered the walled city from the west through the Chandpol (Moon Gate). It was like walking through the looking glass into a different world.

    As we strolled up the main thoroughfare of the pink city - Chandpol Street - we braved the deafening traffic, we observed the traders, shoppers and beggars, and we stared at the multifarious shops and stalls, items for sale laid out on blankets on the 'pavement', and plenty of wandering cows. Our guide correctly called it "a river of life". At a major traffic intersection, which represented a roundabout of sorts (Choti Chopad), he took us to the top of a building to marvel at it all - to see cows meandering without a care in the world through screaming, hooting traffic was a sight to behold.

    For more details on Jaipur click here

    Kathmandu, Nepal

    Kathmandu - the very name evokes exotic images. In fact, many parts of the city - including the modern airport - are not so different from other cities in developing countries, but the centre is truly historic and immediately one leaves the city one enters a world which is almost medieval.

    The heart of old Kathmandu is Durbar Square which is really three loosely linked squares which, with 26 major buildings - including a palace and temples - to study, is like a living museum. The place we really loved was the Makhan Tole ('makhan' means butter and 'tole' means street), a long shopping street stretching north-east from the Durbar Square. We just found it so captivating: variegated spices, garlic and incense exciting the nose, bells, hooters, shouting, conversation and Nepali music assailing the ears, vegetables, fruits, cloths and garlands providing a kaleidoscope of colour for the eyes, bicycles, rickshaws, and scooters coming from the front and behind, Aladdin's caves of tiny shops with a plethora of brass and silverware goods, and men swallowing loudly and spitting forcefully.

    For more details on Kathmandu click here

    Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

    This was my first view of Asia and it was a thrilling, even mind-changing, experience. The willingness to learn and to change and the embracing of new technologies and techniques are turning some parts of Asia, like Malaysia, into economic powerhouses of global significance. In Kuala Lumpur, a potent symbol of this new assurance is the Petronas Towers which is now the tallest building in the world (1,483 ft or 452 metres). At the time of my visit (January 1998), it was not open to the public (you can now go up to the Skybridge linking the two towers), but I had a great view from the Kuala Lumpur Tower which is the fourth largest telecommunications tower in the world (421 metres compared to the BT Tower in London at 189 metres). The markets are like magical bazaars – the Central Market and Chinatown are especially lively – and everywhere there is street-side food preparation and consumption.

    Link: Malaysia site click here

    Kyoto, Japan

    In most countries of the world, the capital city is easily the most interesting. Japan is an exception – Poland is another – since Kyoto is even more worth visiting than Tokyo. Our delegation travelled from Tokyo to Kyoto – a journey of just over two hours - by the famous bullet train and past the scenic Mount Fuji.

    For centuries, Kyoto was the capital of Japan and, to this day, it contains dozens and dozens of temples. I was able to visit four of these marvellous temples: Kiyomizu, Sanjusangendo, Nijo and Nanzen-ji – each very different, but each with many serene shrines and gardens and each a wonderful place for photographs.

    In the evening, we ate at a very traditional Japanese restaurant. By this stage of the tour, I was quite adept with chop-sticks and coping with the strange food, but sitting cross-legged on the floor while eating is tough. After the meal, we were taken to a theatre for a wonderful display of seven traditional Japanese arts. Only the Japanese could make preparing and pouring green tea an art form.

    The saddest thing about the Japanese is not their fondness for raw fish, but their almost total antipathy towards anything resembling a dessert. Even the ice cream usually comes in one flavour only and that’s green tea.

    La Paz, Bolivia

    During a five-nation tour of South America, Vee and I spent two days in the Bolivian capital of La Paz. Sadly she saw nothing of the city because she was flat out in bed suffering from altitude sickness, but I was alright, if a little light-headed. At almost 12,000 feet (3,600 metres), La Paz is the world's highest major city. It is located in a deep basin surrounded by high hills and the skyline is dominated by the snow-capped Mount Illimani which is over 19,000 feet (6,000 metres) high.

    La Paz's main street starts as Mariscal Santa Cruz, becomes Prado, and finishes up as 16 de Julio. Here one finds the top hotels and the finest architecture. However, the real fun is to be found in the city centre, exploring the shops and stalls in the streets of Sagarnaga (which leads up the hill from the Plaza San Francisco) and Linares (which crosses at right angles to Sagarnaga). There is a great place to rest from the effects of the altitude: a little café called "Pepe's" in Pasale Jimenez, just off Linares. Here all the tables had hollow tops covered by glass and, underneath the glass, there were either coffee beans or coca leaves.

    At the corner of Linares and Santa Cruz, there is the famous Mercado de Hechicería or Witchcraft Market. The Bolivians are very superstitious and here one can buy all kinds of bizarre products to warn off ill luck or bring good luck, including dried up bird, monkey, cat, lamb, armadillo, or llama foetus. Some of the things I simply could not identify, but they would not have looked out of place in the film "Jurassic Park". Wherever one turned, there was another market and another street lined with pavement vendors, all wearing traditional costume. The Mercado Negro was particularly vibrant. It seemed impossible to believe that so many people could earn a living in this way.

    Seven miles (11 kms) to the south-east of the city is the bizarre area called Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon). Unbelievely, eons ago this area was under the sea and long, long ago tectonic plates forced it to its present height. The physical formations are really weird.

    For more details on La Paz click here

    Nairobi, Kenya

    In the autumn of 2015, this became a special city to me when my son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter relocated there from London. The elevation of Nairobi is 5,889 feet (1,795 km) which gives the city a pleasant climate in spite of it being only 90 miles (145 km) south of the equator.

    A unique feature of the city is Nairobi National Park which is the only national park in a capital city anywhere in the world. It extends over 117 sq km (45 sq miles) and over 100 mammal species (including lion, buffalo, leopard and rhino) and more than 400 bird species have been recorded there.

    Other places worth visiting are the National Museum and adjoining Snake Park, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust which looks after orphan baby elephants, the Giraffe Centre of the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife which protects the Rothschilds giraffes, and the Karen Blixen House.

    But beware Nairobi roads: there are no pavements, there are lots of pot holes, there are lots of speed bumps, and there is tons of traffic (hence the local expression "pooh-lay, pooh-lay" meaning "slowly, slowly") with most vehicles sporting scratches or dents from minor collisions.

    New York, USA

    This has to be one of the most exciting cities on earth and I never fail to be thrilled when I visit it (I've been six times now). One of the most exciting times was when my wife, my son and I took a helicopter trip around those wonderful Manhattan skyscrapers. Of course, the city will never be quite the same following the appalling events of 11 September 2001 and, since I'd been to the top of the World Trade Center several times, the tragedy was all too immediate. Today the footprints of the Twin Towers are occupied by the the National September 11 Memorial which has to be visited.

    New York has some of the best-known sights in the world: the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, the United Nations Building, Times Square, Broadway, Wall Street, Central Park (each of which I have visited several times and, in the case of the Empire State, six times). It has wonderful museums and art galleries, such as the American Museum of Natural History, the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, the Air & Space Museum on the USS Intrepid aircraft carrier, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, its less well-known branch the Cloisters, and the Guggenheim Museum (most of which I have visited more than once).

    Manhattan is a collection of distinctive disticts which include the financial district, TrBeCa (Triangle Below Canal Street), SoHo (South of Houston Street), Greenwich Village, Chelsea, the theatre district, the Upper West Side, the Upper East Side and Harlem - each of which has a character of its own. The city is easily traversed by its metro system but I like taking the ubiquitous yellow cabs and talking to the drivers who come from every corner of the world.

    Above all, New York has life. This is a city which never sleeps - the prototype of the 24 hour society. I wouldn't want to live here. But it is a fabulous place to visit time and again.

    Links:
    Ellis Island Immigration Museum click here
    American Museum of Natural History click here
    Metropolitan Museum of Art click here

    Philadelphia, USA

    I’ve visited Philadelphia twice – once in 1970 and then again in 1992 and I certainly noticed changes.

    This is the city where effectively the United States was founded and one has to see Carpenters Hall, the site of the first continental congress of 1774, and Independence Hall, the site of the proclamation and signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. On the opposite side of the road is the Liberty Bell Pavilion, built for the centennial celebrations in 1976 (previously the bell - with its famous crack - was housed in Independence Hall). A good location nearby to eat is “Benny’s Place” on Chestnut Street.

    In 1970, the tallest structure in the city was City Hall, the tower of which is topped by a statue of William Penn. However, on my more recent visit, I found that there were three stylish skyscrapers, each dwarfing the City Hall. Two of these skyscrapers are linked by a shopping complex called Liberty Place which features a glass rotunda and more places to eat. Philadelphia is known as the city of love and in a nearby park is a sculpture spelling out the word LOVE.

    Québec, Canada

    Incredibly – at least for these affluent days – my first real trip abroad (aside from two short trips to Naples to see my mother’s relatives) was an educational tour of western Canada when I was 18. There were 24 of us and one of my companions was Michael Wood who now presents the historical television programmes that Vee likes so much. In those days, flying was expensive and we sailed across the Atlantic which took five days.

    We eventually docked at Québec which we approached down the Saint Lawrence River. It was thrilling to stand on deck and see the profile of the Chateau Frontenac rising above us. Once on land, we were taken on a tour of the Citadel and the Plains of Abraham where the British eventually beat the French, as our guide explained – and I can still remember the phrase 35 years later - in a manoeuvre whereby the British Wolfe outfoxed his French rival Montcalm.

    Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

    We arrived in Rio on a Sunday morning and, while Vee collapsed on the bed with jet lag, I went strolling along the world-famous beaches of Copocabana and Ipanema. Never have I seen so many gorgeous women exposing so much beautiful flesh, although Sunday sunbathing is so fashionable in Rio that there were many men and women of all ages and shapes revealing most of their bodies in a manner which would never be contemplated in prudish Britain. If all this caused my pulse to race a liitle, it beat even more a couple of days later when Vee decided to do the craziest thing of her life by jumping off a mountain in order to hang glide to a beach below.

    Rio is one of those cities of contrasts. Everyone knows of the Sugar Loaf mountain and the taller mountain with the statute of Christ on the top - properly called Pão de Açúcar and Corcovado respectively - although it may not be appreciated that often (as with our visits) the tops are shrouded in mist. What is largely unknown outside Brasil is that Rio is also home to over 30 favelas or shanty towns where there is considerable poverty and - in some cases - extreme violence. We saw some of them from a distance through a bus window; it took the later film "City Of God" [for review click here] to bring home what is really going on there.

    For more details on Rio click here

    Samarkand, Uzbekistan

    The capital of Uzbekistan Tashkent is a dour place: many of the buildings were destroyed in a powerful earthquake in 1966 and much of the city features the utilitarian design of the Soviet period. But Samarkand is an utterly different proposition. Dating back to the 6th century BC, for some 2,000 years it was one of the most important stops on the famous Silk Road.

    The historic heart of Samarkand is the magnificent Registan which consists of three great buildings around a central square. The Ulug Beg Madrassah was built between 1417-1420 shortly after the death of Tamerlane and constructed by Tamerlane's grandson Ulug Beg; the Sher-Dor Madrassah - the name means 'Lion Bearer' - was built between 1619-1636 and modelled on the earlier Ulug Beg Madrassah; the Tillya-Kari Madrassah was erected between 1646-1660 and the name means 'Gold Decorated'.


    The three madrassahs comprising the Registan

    Besides the Registan, there are many other wonderful sites in Samarkand. The holiest site in the city is the Shah-I-Zinda (The Living King). This complex of 22 buildings is a necropolis of mausoleums dating mostly from the 14th & 15th centuries. Then there is the Gur Emir Mausoleum. Originally this mausoleum was built by Tamerlane for his grandson who died in 1404, but more significantly it was used to house the tomb of Tamerlane himself who died the following year. Also 'must sees' are the Bibi Khanum Mosque, built on the orders of Tamarlane in 1399-1404, and the Ulug Beg Observatory, built in 1428 by Tamerlane's grandson Ulug Beg who was much less interested in warfare than in science.

    For more details on Samarkand click here

    San Jose, Costa Rica

    I couldn’t believe it when in December 1991 I was given the chance to visit Latin America for the first time. I was invited to speak at a conference of a telecommunications trade union and the national telecommunications company agreed to pay my fare. I knew that the Latins have a relaxed approach to time in sharp contrast to my own, but I was not prepared for the experience in Costa Rica where the people are so laid back that they refer to “tico time” (the locals are called ticos or – in the case of the gorgeous women – ticas). Every appointment was late and even the conference began almost an hour after the scheduled time.

    So I decided to go with the flow and had a wonderful time. Perhaps the best experience was eating on a hill outside the city with a breathtaking view of the shimmering lights of San Jose and then returning to town for a late-night session in one of the traditional mariachi bars where one is serenaded by a small troupe of performers. But it was weird to see Christmas trees and Father Christmas in heat of 26 degrees C (79 degrees F)!

    San Francisco, USA

    I've only visited SF three times, but the first time in summer 1970 I lived and worked there for two months, so I know the city well and regard it as one of my favourite North American locations. On that first visit, I took whatever temporary work I could find to eke out my meagre budget. For a few days, I even worked in a garden for a great guy called Walter Peach and, although my efforts were pretty pathetic, he enjoyed our conversations and took me out one evening for a terrific meal in the city's extensive Chinatown. Ten years later, I revisited SF in less straightened circumstances and this time I took Walter to the same Chinese restaurant at my expense.

    The Golden Gate Bridge is, of course, the symbol of the city and I've walked the full length of this wonderful construction. The views of the city from the north end of the bridge and from nearby Sausalito are simply magnificent.

    Fisherman's Wharf is a thrilling collection of shops and restaurants and people with a view of Alcatraz Island in the middle of the Bay. It took me three visits to the city before I managed to sail out to Alcatraz - the first time, I didn't have the money; the second time, I didn't have the time (so I flew over it in a helicopter instead); but the third time I visited this chilling place of incarceration.

    I especially love the undulating hills of San Francisco, so that a walk down one road, which looks straightforward on the map, can turn into a real hike but provide spectacular views of downtown and the harbour. Then again, one can always take the famous cable cars, three routes of which still operate.

    For relaxation, it is hard to beat a visit to the huge - bigger than Central Park in New York - Golden Gate Park which includes such great places to enter like the De Young Museum.

    Link: Golden Gate Bridge click here

    Shanghai, China

    Shanghai is the economic powerhouse of modern-day China and, as such, it is a city of immense contrast. If one stolls along the Bung observing its 1930s art deco buildings or around the still-charming former French concession quarter, it is not difficult to imagine the pre-war opulence enjoyed by the European colonial powers who traded there. On the other hand, if one looks around the Pu Dong district on the other side of the Yangtze River, one sees more skyscrapers than in any European city or even New York.

    When we were in Shanghai in 2000, we visited the famous and distinctive Oriental Pearl Tower, at the time the largest structure in the city. The total height of this construction is 468 metres (1,535 feet) and we went up to an observation deck at 263 metres (863 feet). There was a clear view of the rash of skyscrapers taking over the centre of the city, the most prominent being the Jin Mao Tower which was still very much under construction.

    When we revisited the city ten years later in 2010, we found the Jin Mao Tower was complete and now rises to 421 metres (1,381 feet) but, since that construction, another structure – higher than either the Oriental Pearl Tower or the Jin Mao Tower – has been built and this stands at an incredible 492 metres (1,614 feet) – the Empire State Building in New York is 'only' 381 metres (1,249 feet). This is the Shanghai World Financial Center which stands out on the city skyline, not just because of its record height but because of its distinctive design – it looks like a bottle-opener with a rectangular cut-out at the top.

    The highest observation platform is located along the top line of the rectangular shape at 474 metres (1,555 feet) and it has been accepted by the “Guinness Book Of Records” as the highest in the world. Naturally we went there and looked down on the Oriental Pearl Tower that had seemed the ultimate on our previous visit to the city.


    The Shanghai World Financial Center
    - the one with the 'hole' in the top

    View from the SWFC of
    Jin Mao Tower (L) & Oriental Pearl Tower (R)

    In terms of China's cultural liberalisation, Shanghai is the most important city in this huge nation while, in respect of the global economy, this is one of the most important cities on earth.

    For more details on Shanghai in 2000 click here

    For more details on Shanghai in 2010 click here

    Link: Shanghai World Financial Center click here

    Tel Aviv, Israel

    Tel Aviv must be the most European city in the Middle East. It has none of the religious weirdness of Jerusalem (the capital); instead it is a lively and cosmopolitan centre with art galleries, museums, cafes and restaurants with a wonderful location by the Mediterranean Sea. Tel Aviv was originally the Jewish quarter of the 3,000 year old Jaffa, but now Jaffa is effectively a district of the much bigger Tel Aviv.


    Tel Aviv view of the Mediterranean
    from our hotel veranda

    One has to stroll down Shienkin Street, often regarded as Tel Aviv's trendiest street. It is a place to sit outside a café, have a drink, and people-watch – which we did most enjoyably. Our route back to the hotel was through the Shuq HaCarmel market. The babble of noise that greeted us came from Israel's largest, most colourful open-air market which sells just about everything from different kinds of bread and pastry to delicious olives, dried fruits and exotic spices.

    In Israel, one is never free of history and politics and Tel Aviv has museums commemorating each of the three Jewish military forces which opposed the British mandate in the run up to 1948. The Haganah was the main underground military organisation of the yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine before the creation of Israel). Then there was the Irgun (officially the ETZEL) which was a much smaller but more militant movement than the Haganah. Finally there was the Stern gang (officially the LEHI), the smallest and the most extremist of the groups. We visited the ETZEL and the LEHI museums which was something of a culture shock.

    For more details on Tel Aviv click here

    Tokyo, Japan

    Of course, there is nothing really historic in Tokyo because absolutely everything was destroyed in the war. Even the Imperial Palace – which one cannot visit anyway – was only completed in 1968 to replace the one constructed in 1888 and blasted by American bombing. But the city is a modernist splendour or nightmare – depending on your point of view. I found it all rather exciting in the few days that I was there.

    Ginza is the shopping area that many people have heard of – full of every western brand name that you can think of and divided by huge multiple zebra crossings. But it was the Shinjuku business and entertainment district that stunned me – the metro station there handles two million passengers a day and at night the place is a ferocious barrage of noise and neon. In the interets of cultural experimentation (!), I allowed myself to be taken to a hostess bar at the end of one evening and to indulge in a session of karaoke to round off another.

    Washington, USA

    I've now had the opportunity to visit Washington seven times and it never fails to thrill. Anyone remotely interested in politics - and I'm very interested - has to see Congress, the White House, the National Archives Building, and the Watergate complex. The city has magnificent monuments to its most famous presidents - Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and (most recently) Roosevelt - plus a host of memorials, the most memorable and moving being the Vietnam Wall.

    I particularly love Washington's museums which include the National Museum of Natural History, the National Museum of American History and the National Gallery of Art. In fact, the Smithsonian Institute has no fewer than 18 museums, the newest being the Museum of the American Indian - and admission to all is free.

    My favourite is the wonderful National Air & Space Museum. Here you can see everything from the first aircraft to make a heavier than air flight the Wright Brothers 'Flyer', to the Bell X-1 in which Chuck Yeager first broke the sound barrier, to the North American X-15 which was the first aircraft to fly at four, five and six times the speed of sound, to a full-scale Apollo moon module. Also, on every visit to the museum, I take in one or two of the sensational IMAX films such as the original museum offering "To Fly!"

    There is a new (2003) branch of the National Air and Space Museum located next to Dulles Airport and a companion to the much older, main museum on the Mall in Washington. There is a magnificent collection of aircraft here displayed in a huge, huge hanger in a way that allows both views from walkways above many of the larger craft and from floor level. Highlights of this large and fascinating collection include the B-29 Flying Superfortress "Enola Gay" which dropped the first atomic bomb in 1945, an SR 71 Blackbird spy plane, a French-operated Concorde, and the Space Shuttle "Enterprise".

    Two other Washington museums are not free but are essential viewing because of the historical insights that they give: the moving Holocaust Memorial Museum, whose name speaks for itself, and the Newseum, which chronicles a hisory of newspapers.

    Links:
    Guide to Washington click here
    National Museum of American History click here
    National Air & Space Museum click here
    National Gallery of Art click here
    Holocaust Memorial Museum click here
    Newseum click here

    Vancouver, Canada

    In 1966, I sailed across the North Atlantic to commence an educational tour of the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario. On the liner, I befriended a young Canadian called Joanne Hyndman who was concerned that we were not visiting her 'side' of Canada (she came from Vancouver). Four years later, I found myself in North America for three months, the last month travelling around on Greyhound buses from the west coast of the USA to the east coast. While most of my friends dipped south into Mexico, I went north to Canada, starting in Vancouver. By this time, I'd lost contact with Joanne - but I found her in the telephone directory and we got together again.

    Joanne (where are you now?) was right - Vancouver was well worth visiting. I actually stayed with folks in North Vancouver, at the foot of the Grouse Mountain Skyride. At the heart of the city are the contrasting districts of Gastown, Chinatown and the business quarter but, outside the centre, there is the attractive Stanley Park and beaches like Kitsilano. Coincidentally, I was in Vancouver for the Pacific National Exhibition which has run annually since 1910. For a city boy like me, it was great fun to see all the flowers, fruit, vegetables, poultry, pigs, sheep and cattle and to witness competitive tree-sawing, tree-chopping, tree-climbing, log-rolling, and axe-throwing. During the two days I was in Vancouver, it never stopped raining and, from questions I've put to other visitors over the intervening 30+ years, it seems that this is the usual state of affairs there.

    Xi'an, China

    Most people in the West have never heard of Xi’an, but everyone knows of the Terracotta Army which is located to the north-east of the city. The city itself is fascinating and the warriors are simply spectacular.

    Xi’an is such an historic city. The city walls were built between 1368-1398 and – uniquely among Chinese cities - are still intact. Close by is the fascinating Muslim quarter with its exotic market, full of new sounds (like caged crickets) and smells (like various spices), and the wonderful Great Mosque with its strange mix of Chinese and Muslim symbols and styles. Another interesting site is the Great Wild Goose Pagoda.

    It is a two-hour coach journey to the museum housing the Terracotta Army - actually three halls enclosing the excavations and a small museum proper. We set off really early and arrived a few minutes before opening time. To stride up the steps and into the main hall, to stand there alone surveying tier upon tier of warriors, to gaze upon some 6,000 figures some 2,000 years old – this was a truly awe-inspiring moment. We were even able to take photographs, which is not normally permitted, and we met one of the three farmers who accidentally discovered the treasures in 1974 and signed a souvenir picture book for us.

    For more details on Xi'an and the Terracotta Army click here

    Link: Guide to Xi'an click here

    ROGER DARLINGTON

    Last modified on 30 October


    Some Travel Sites

    Lonely Planet click here
    Wanda Lust blog click here

    Back to home page click here